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Hermann GOETZ (1840-1876)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major (1861) [19:41]
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op.18 (1867) [37:29]
Spring Overture, Op.15 (1864) [12:29]
Davide Cabassi (piano)
Magdeburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Kimbo Ishii
rec. June 2014, Theatre Magdeburg Center Stage, Magdeburg, Germany
NAXOS 8.573327 [69:57]

I first became acquainted with the music of Goetz many years ago, when I bought a Genesis two-LP set of his chamber music for piano and strings. The joyous opening of the piano quartet Op 6 became a favourite piece to play to musical guests, who were invited to identify the composer. Unfailingly, they expressed enthusiasm for the piece and were surprised, when the composer was revealed and they had never heard of him. Although this opening movement of the quartet rather stood out amongst the works on the set, I was equally surprised that more of this composer’s music was not available at the time.

I was not alone in my regard - George Bernard Shaw was also a considerable enthusiast for the music of Goetz. GBS’s 1893 review of the composer’s Symphony Op 9 refers to “the charm of Schubert without his brainlessness” and “the refinement and inspiration of Mendelssohn without his limitation and timid gentility”. By comparison “….Brahms is a dolt”. This sentiment obviously greatly overstated Goetz’s case and posterity was to take a different view. After the composer’s early death, from the TB that had plagued him since his early teenage years, his compositions gradually tumbled into obscurity – despite the later efforts of Mahler, who admired the orchestral music and conducted it periodically at his own concerts. It is only in the CD age that a wider selection of his music has been recorded and we can start to appreciate it afresh. Amongst several other orchestral, chamber, instrumental and choral compositions - and operas - Goetz completed a symphony, a violin concerto and two piano concertos (and he was sketching a third when he died). Neither of the two extant piano concertos is remotely in the league of the two towering piano concertos of Brahms but they both have considerable attractions – whilst exhibiting fairly clearly the reasons for their disappearance from the standard repertoire.

The first concerto is a one-movement student work dating from 1861. It opens with a brief and restrained Andante string introduction, answered by rhetorical filigree flourishes from the piano, leading into an Allegro, all based on a Mendelssohnian motif-like theme. This is followed by the undistinguished development of a barely noticeable second subject. The first section of the work is over fairly quickly and gives way to a quiet Adagio. This lacks much of a theme, although it develops a pleasing ruminative atmosphere. A quiet string tune - a development of the original theme of the first section – introduces the blistering piano rhetoric that announces the third section (“Tempo I”). The booklet writer advances the suggestion that Goetz was “determined to demonstrate to his professors his thorough understanding of orchestral tone colours” and there are several passages where the role of the soloist is purely to accompany the orchestra. That said, this section seems mainly to be a vehicle for virtuoso display. There is a considerable cadenza-like solo passage in the middle and then, once again, the music speeds to a somewhat unexpectedly sudden conclusion. It is all pleasant enough music but, because the themes are not memorable, the piece is not exactly gripping.

The second concerto is the more substantial. The first movement (Mig bewegt – moderately brisk) does have a clear theme, which recurs – most notably towards the end of the movement. This one is more Schumannesque although Goetz commented to Ernst Frank (the pianist who took over performing the concerto after Goetz was no longer able to) that he felt it demanded “a Chopin technique ….[whereas] Brahms needs a Schumann technique”. There is a long and interesting cadenza (which I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Goetz only added several years after the work was premiered). As with Mendelssohn’s two extant mature piano concerti the slow movement (Mig langsam) follows without a break. It is more the style of Mendelssohn that dominates here, albeit (once again) without much of a theme, so that the movement is a bit long for its material. Here, Goetz seems to weave piano accompaniment around a three note motif which is predominantly given to wind solos. After a slow bridging passage (“Langsam”) into the third movement, the music accelerates into an animated (“Belebter”) waltz, surrounded by decoration. There is much to enjoy here (including a particularly lovely passage soon after 9:30) but, as is typical of composers of the second and third ranks, the music tends to lose direction. It finishes – again somewhat unexpectedly – after an orchestral tutti fizzles out. (Goetz obviously didn’t “do” codas). The short booklet note draws attention to the possibility that Goetz intended some kind of hidden meaning or message behind the music, but offers no suggestions as to what this might have been.

So far as I am aware the First Concerto was not available until Volker Banfield recorded both concertos for CPO. For comparison the only access I have to the CPO recording is via YouTube – although this probably provides an adequate idea of the recording quality.

The Naxos disc provides separate tracks for each of the three sections. At lower (probably more normal listening) volumes, the recording sounds clear, if somewhat reverberant. Turn up the wick and the piano also sounds slightly congested. Balance is a bit of a problem – the piano being recorded close and spot-lit so that it tends to overpower the orchestral contribution. The make of piano is not specified but, here, it occasionally sounds a little clangorous - like the sort of instrument Michael Ponti used to favour on his Vox recordings. Cabassi’s powerful technique is generally well served but the recording emphasises an occasional lack of subtlety and I wonder, if the slow section would benefit from a gentler approach. The whole work came across as rather heavy Mendelssohn without the tunes. Banfield’s recording is better balanced but less atmospheric. Purely in terms of performance it seems to me that there is little to choose between Cabassi and Banfield and the slight pros and cons balance each other out.

I originally made the acquaintance of the second concerto in the 1980s from one of the aforesaid old Vox recordings of Michael Ponti (review), but this was replaced in my affections (mainly owing to the quality of the piano) by an LP of Paul Baumgartner with the Beromunster Radio Orchestra under Erich Schmid, a recording which may also still be available. More recently the work has been recorded by Hamish Milne on Hyperion (review) so I used that performance for purposes of comparison.

The balance issues I noted in the Naxos First Concerto serve the Second Concerto rather better and even the piano sounds slightly better. The horns are more prominent and I prefer this, although the presence of any contribution by the timpani is also somewhat over-emphasised. Overall the rival Hyperion recording is good but, surprisingly, it sounds a bit muffled in comparison. In terms of performance Cabassi is more subtle here than in the First Concerto and seems to me to be the equal of Milne – although this may be partly down to the brighter recording. There are some lovely moments (try 7:15 in the first movement where the music floats ethereally) and the slow movement is played beautifully. In the last movement Cabassi’s performance also strikes me as the more nuanced, with greater dynamic contrasts.

The Spring Overture is a good filler and musically it is at least as interesting as most of Schumann’s overtures – if not Mendelssohn’s. That said, it is not too difficult to see why it had, until now, slipped into oblivion. The Magdeburg players give it a very decent performance and the recording is splendidly detailed.

Despite slight reservations about the First Concerto, and given the price, I think this Naxos disc is now the front runner for this music.

Bob Stevenson



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